7th of March 2023

Published by Marketingfacts See original article

Differentiation versus distinctiveness

More awareness that the brand is important and that brand advertising deserves more attention. That the B2B buyer suite is not only concerned with product features, but makes safe choices and only considers two options. B2B is becoming more creative, more human and gaining traction. The scope of this discipline is huge, even bigger than B2C marketing. In short, the momentum for B2B marketing is here. But how do we seize that momentum and actually usher in the golden age of B2B marketing? What is needed for this and what tools do B2B marketers need to restore their place as marketers and show what they have to offer?

In this series, Maartje Grossouw and I dive into this issue. From the role of the brand in B2B organizations, to its financial value and from the relevance of the brand in the organization to how the B2B brand has a place in the hearts of customers. In this article: Can you really differentiate your brand from the competition or is success all about standing out and getting people to recognize your brand? That’s what the differentiation vs distinctiveness discussion is all about.

What is the difference?

The words differentiation and distinctiveness are sometimes used interchangeably. What do the two actually mean and what is the difference? Differentiation is about features of a product or service that differentiate a brand in the eyes of the customer. Think of chewing gum that retains flavor twice as long or a television with Ambilight.

Distinctiveness is all about making your brand easily identified by customers. Brand names, logos, jingles, slogans and house styles contribute to this. Just think of the yellow M from McDonalds. When you see it you immediately think of McDonalds.

Why is this even a discussion?

Yes, good question. You would think you need both to win as a B2B brand. Make sure you develop a unique, superior product and make it known to the market with eye-catching, recognizable advertising. Done, end of blog.

If only it were such a party.

When Byron Sharp published his book How Brands Grow in 2010, he initiated a change. Before 2010 differentiation was high on every marketer’s list, after 2010 it was no longer so obvious. Chapter 8 begins with these ringing sentences (Byron Sharp & Jenny Romaniuk, How Brands Grow):

“Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. Branding lasts, differentiation doesn’t.”

So throw that Unique Selling Proposition out the door. Because customers don’t care, according to Mr. Sharp. And the question is whether you can sustain differentiation in the long term. Many innovations are temporarily protected by patent, but eventually often fall prey to competition. Sharp’s partner in crime, Jenny Romaniuk, took it a step further in late October by posting an article on LinkedIn entitled “Reading 16 recommended articles on brand differentiation did not change my mind, and I doubt they would change yours either”.

Meaningless distinctiveness, that is. Even Ritson is convinced, if we are to believe his November column. “A new marketing phase is resulting in empty but effective advertising,” he writes. The reason for the column is a commercial of vodka brand Belvedere. Vodka, a fairly indifferentiable product, you would say. “Anyone who tells you they have a ‘favorite vodka’ is writing ‘I know nothing’ in red lipstick across their forehead in wonky letters in front of you,” says Ritson. And so Belvedere is fully committed to distinctiveness: standing out. And it does so on the basis of the commercial below, with former 007 movie star Daniel Craig.

Is it a new vodka flavor? No. It’s ‘just’ Belvedere vodka. But it is recognizable, among other things by the characteristic shape of the Belvedere bottle, which is probably familiar to many who sometimes go out. A real distinctive asset. Belvedere succeeds in capturing attention with their advertising. And that is worth a lot in modern marketing. Because according to Sharp’s laws, a successful brand makes a profit by achieving a large reach, standing out and building salience . Salience is all about linking the right buying intentions to your brand. Party? Vodka! At least, that’s what Belvedere is probably trying to achieve.

Another B2C example, what about B2B?

Sure, the above is again about the B2C marketing world. What about B2B then? Do the same laws apply there? Ritson is convinced of this: “Summarizing a big literature into one sentence, it’s more about salience than it is about image. Bring the brand to mind – among as many people, and as often, and as positively as possible – and you will win growth. […] this logic of salience above image applies to every category – B2B, B2C, services, SaaS and SME – and to a greater degree than most marketers thought possible. Partly because without salience there is no image. Partly because we overvalued image and undervalued salience for a marketing generation.”

Ritson goes so far as to say that positioning isn’t extremely important, especially in a meaningless category like vodka. But buying a bottle of vodka is definitely different from buying a SaaS solution, I hear you say. That is an investment of tons and revolves around developing the best features for customers. Well, that’s not entirely true either.

B2B customers, even just people, appear to be satisficing en masse . They choose the most acceptable choice available and do not go through the entire market and compare features. At most, they compare the two most popular options. See for yourself how many options you compare when it comes to purchasing a new CRM software package. There is a good chance that you will compare the most famous names such as Salesforce, Hubspot or Simplicate and will not list the options until page 4 of Google.

Again: customers don’t care

“Remember that customers aren’t that convinced or concerned if brands are different. They will naturally buy the brands they remember and can find when needed.”

– Alicia Barker, Small But Mighty: Tiny Brand Advertising Strategies

This quote from Alicia Barker, like Sharp and Romaniuk from the Ehrenberg Bass Institute camp, explains it simply. Customers don’t care much if your brand is different from the competition. The main thing is that they know where to find you at the right times. You build the mental availability of your brand on the basis of category entry points , or more simply: purchase intentions. “If you can understand the needs and triggers that cause your customers to enter the market – if you can identify those category entry points – you can use them to build mental availability” (source: The B2B Institute ) .

Barker puts it this way: “Think ‘ Hey, we’re here, we’re good, give us a try! ‘ rather than ‘ We are different from other brands, this is why you should buy us! ‘.”

Read the full article in Marketingfacts.


Now available as an eBook exclusively to Apple iBooks


The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science is the world’s largest centre for research into marketing. Our team of market research experts can help you grow your brand and develop a culture of evidence-based marketing.